THE COSMOPOLITANS

If you’re a fan of Whit Stillman’s movies, or just a fan of quirky, original, amusing TV, take a look at Stillman’s pilot for an Amazon Originals series:

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It’s a short, funny, intriguing introduction to a circle of young ex-pats living in Paris — they’re sophisticated, up to a point, clueless, up to a point, and generally bewildered about love and sex, which is what they’re mostly interested in.

If you like it, vote for the series to continue — which is the only way we’re going to get more of this delectable treat.

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Jacques Demy’s films are odd combinations of whimsey, melancholia, fantasy, grace and bittersweet transcendence.  They are always sincerely humane but sometimes, for me, a bit thin, a bit precious.

Lola, his first feature film, from 1961, has its moments of genuine magic, and one wrenching dramatic confrontation, but it has an anodyne quality overall.  Demy loves to set up situations that threaten disaster but end up o. k., or even magically well.  This can start to seem a little too pat and cute at times.

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Of course, at other times Demy deals with genuine emotional disasters that are only redeemed by resignation, acceptance and charity, and his films can be deeply moving when he ventures into that sort of psychic territory.  Essentially, Demy’s work is melodrama, inflected in quirky ways — sometimes a bit too fecklessly, sometimes in ways that are surprising and amusing, sometimes in ways that touch the heart memorably.

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There’s never been another film artist quite like him.  At his best he’s eccentrically brilliant, and even when he’s not at his best he reveals a spirit that’s sweetly endearing.  Lola is not, to my mind, Demy at his best, but it’s entertaining and charming enough in its own modest terms.  Raoul Coutard’s wonderful black-and-white cinematography, all done on location in Nantes, is alone worth the price of admission.

FOLLOW THAT DREAM

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A case might be made that a cinema without conventional artistic ambitions would be the purest form of cinema possible.  Its visual aspect would aspire to delight and interest without convincing anyone that its images were aesthetically valuable in themselves.  Its narrative aspect would aspire to engage without convincing anyone that the drama it served was profound or important.  It would reduce every aspect of cinema to the absolute essence of cinema’s appeal — moving pictures of interesting places and people that tell a coherent and involving story just for its own sake.

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From this viewpoint, many of the movies starring Elvis Presley would rank as the purest sort of cinema.  They consist of images crafted by highly competent technicians which are pleasing to look at and often very interesting as photographic records.  Their narratives have no pretensions to dramatic profundity but are diverting and amusing.  They are set in interesting places, a mix of actual locations and studio sets that meticulously recreate actual locations with daring artificiality.  They are all organized around a personality with a riveting screen presence and a spectacular talent — singing — who is fascinating to watch quite apart from his skills as an actor impersonating a character.

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Many Elvis movies fail to deliver any of the elements we normally expect cinematic “art” to deliver, yet they are exhilarating phenomena all the same.  They reduce commercial narrative cinema to its essence, and remind us that the essence of commercial narrative cinema has a high value in its own right.  They are great and admirable because they are intensely fun and fascinating and pleasing without pretending to be anything other than intensely fun and fascinating and pleasing.

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Check out Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray edition of the Elvis movie Follow That Dream.  It is intensely fun and fascinating and pleasing.  It is pure cinema.

NYMPHOMANIAC

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I’ve only seen two films by Lars von Trier, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac, and I think they could both be best described as banal.  Each has a prominent organizing hook, and each hook is developed in the tritest way possible.

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In Melancholia, a dysfunctional extended family is being torn apart by bleak despair at the same time — the exact same time! – as a previously hidden planet is hurtling towards a possible collision with the Earth.  The name of the planet is — wait for it — Melancholia!  What are the odds?

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In Nymphomaniac, a woman recounts a life devoted to satisfying her voracious sexual appetites.  It turns out that she has since childhood felt a profound inner emptiness which she thought that various forms of purely carnal sex might fill up, though — wait for it — they didn’t!  Imagine that!

The drama of the dysfunctional family in Melancholia is familiar bad soap opera stuff.  The incidents in Nymphomaniac are more varied and engaging.  Some of them are even vaguely erotic, even if they don’t add up to much as a psychological portrait of their protagonist.

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Von Trier is, philosophically speaking, an existential nihilist, and he makes a valiant attempt to cast his protagonist’s acceptance of her basically meaningless life as an act of courageous heroism.  Some, like that happy-go-lucky hairpin Jean-Paul Sartre, might find this convincing but it seems a bit puerile to me.  It’s certainly no fun, presenting sex as a desperate existential chore.  Lie back and think of Huis Clos.

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Von Trier also makes an utterly unconvincing case for his protagonist as a feminist pioneer, suggesting that if a man had led the life of sexual adventuring she led he would be admired.  Perhaps, but only by idiots.  Heartless sex is heartless sex, whatever the gender of those who engage in it.  It’s not the worst thing in the world but it doesn’t make any life worth living sub specie aeternitatis, or any other specie I can think of.

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There are, as I say, a few amusing and titillating passages in the film and it has a witty, unexpected twist at the end but, by the second half of the four-hour version I watched, its governing mode had become pure ennui.  You have to work hard to make sex boring but von Trier pulled it off in Nymphomaniac.